Behind Evangelical Politics: Abraham Kuyper

It would as easy to exaggerate his influence as it is for some to ignore his influence, but at least a major voice behind all of evangelical political action — from Francis Schaeffer and the Moral Majority to Charles Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Wayne Grudem and then on to even someone like Tim Keller and JD Hunter or Andy Crouch and in other ways in people like Jim Wallis and evangelical progressives — is the Dutch theologian, journalist, pastor, and politician Abraham Kuyper. Many of us know him from his century-long reprints of Lectures on Calvinism, in which Calvinism does not mean TULIP but a comprehensive world view, but now James D. Bratt has written the Life of Lives when it comes Kuyper: Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. All those who care about Kuyper or who want to comprehend his influence on political and cultural thinking will have to absorb the fullness of this complete biography by Bratt.

Where do you see Kuyper’s influence today? What themes do you see as distinctly Kuyperian?

How to summarize such a full and fast-paced life? Bratt’s words will have to do: “The Calvinist champion was a man of self-will; the man of faith, obsessed with working; the one humbled before God, yearning to be lifted high among men, and succeeding” (375). I suspect many great Christian leaders, Calvinist or not, has similar paradoxes at work in life, but I see the man less as paradoxical and more shaped by a relentless Calvinist ambition to get the world and church in order. He was a man with disciples but no real colleagues when he was at work.

Kuyper was a Titan. “Thus, in terms of the great quarrel in nineteenth-century American Calvinism, Kuyper combined the organization skill of Lyman Beecher, the platform presence of Charles Finney, and the public activism of both with the theological convictions — and no less the theological acumen — of Charles Hodge” (xx). That is the man we encounter in Bratt’s massive and splendidly written, if often assuming too much knowledge of the history of ideas, European history and Dutch politics than most will bring to the book, biography. Now some summary points.

1. Born in 1837, died in 1920. Dutch Calvinist. Suffered a number of nervous breakdowns that were relieved by retreats. At 25 had an earnest evangelical conversion. Married in 1863, a pastor and became a strict orthodox Calvinist. Combined pulpit with political voice so much so that the latter consumed his life while the former never passed away. He became Prime Minister eventually; he managed a newspaper for nearly 50 years; he wrote voluminously about politics, about theology, and also had a number of devotional works. Early in his public career he flirted with and experienced the English holiness movement of Hannah Whithall Smith and others; he backed away from this. He formed the AntiRevolutionary Party. Founded Free University, was a professor there. Was, as can be expected, deeply involved with a number of political issues, like education, the common people, wages, freedom of religion. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton, published as Lectures on Calvinism, to less than fifty people. He was more accepted in Michigan than at Princeton. Wrote a big work called Common Grace. A major theme of his life was Christ over and against the tide of modernity.

2. Probably his most influential idea, and perhaps not recognized as present in much of evangelical political thought, is sphere sovereignty. Christ, he believed, ruled over all and “common grace” became a central idea to express his political theology, and that life can be divided into spheres like education, family, church, state, economy, etc.. (Dooyeweerd developed sixteen such spheres with rigor.) Each sphere is its own domain and each has its own philosophy and direction, and Christians were to influence the whole by engaging in the sphere or spheres to which they are called. Reformed friends at times tell me this is “all they hear” and not a couple have told me this sphere sovereignty diminishes the church. I can see that in the history of influence or in the praxis of some, but because Kuyper’s own world was still very much a church-shaped state or a Christian society, though it was changing dramatically as he lived, I don’t see a diminishment of church in Kuyper himself, though his energies were exhausted seemingly in the political realm.

American evangelical politics of influence, which is what we have at most today since the days of direct control are long gone, have been shaped by more than Kuyper. In fact, prior to Kuyper and going right back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop and his ilk, we had an English- (not Dutch-) inspired vision of politics and that English-shape was Puritan, and that Puritan shape had the hope of a Christian nation (what England did not choose to do in the mind of the Puritans) but quickly realized a vision more in keeping with pluralism and the separation of church and state (thanks to Roger Williams). So, the Kuyperian influence we see today is set into a different context altogether once it hits the USA and that Puritan heritage means the Kuyperian vision will have to bend to fit in.

3. This leads to what I would say is the major thrust of Kuyper’s theology/political theology: Calvinism (not TULIP and not a soteriogically reduced Calvinism) is a comprehensive set of ideas that provides perspective on all of life and therefore reshapes all of life under God and under King Jesus (he often uses King Jesus). This is intellectual Calvinism and not just theological Calvinism. Common grace, which stands behind all of Kuyper, is that God rules the world and stakes a claim on it all and reveals through nature and the mind of humans how this world is to work orderly … and Calvinist explains this all. (NeoThomism is a genuine alternative to Kuyper’s NeoCalvinism; Kuyper’s NeoCalvinism has little to do with the rise of Calvinism among Baptists and free church people in the USA. One finds a kind of Kuyperian theology more in someone like Keller, though his Kuyperian stream is far less activistic and far more ecclesially centered than Kuyper.) Kuyper’s famous statement: “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (195). This provided the grounds for Kuyper’s focus on developing a “Christian life- and world-view.”

4. Thus it might be fairest to Kuyper to see his ecclesiology, as the place where God’s grace and the gospel are at work best, as shaping his political theology instead of the latter ignoring and taking off where the former left off. (See chp 9 in Bratt’s book.) He had a robust Trinitarian theology, a classic Calvinistic radical theocentricity, and his theology was always shaped first by the redemptive work of Christ. But this soteriology was very individualistic. Still, his sphere sovereignty and ecclesiology led to his thinking that if this is God’s truth it must be worked out in some form in the public realm. (This is to be distinguished from H. Richard Niebuhr’s much less Calvinist version of Christ and culture.) There was a more free version of the church at work in Kuyper, one more shaped by personal faith and active discipleship than institutional forms or reforms. Thus, “God was still building the Kingdom that Jesus announced, but the church is the ‘scaffolding’ of that construction — dispensable at the end but utterly necessary along the way” (177; I do not know how one can read Rev 21–22 and see the church as dispensable at the end).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jim Dekker

    Although I’ve been away from ‘Kuyper talk’ for some time, it’s refreshing to hear a new work is appreciating Kuyper and NeoCalvinism for what it is – distant from the pop Calvinism of today. PS I’m glad for the mention of Dooyeweerd as well.

  • Tom F.

    The “spheres” thing is really interesting; why spheres? Late nineteenth century folks really liked that spatial metaphor for some reason, it showed up in much of the gender debates in America during that period too (home was women’s sphere). I mean, why not boxes or triangles or something. This may seem to be a silly question, but I wonder if the answer might illuminate the inner logic of a “sphere” theory. For example, where do spheres show up in 19th century life?

    In terms of gender politics, separate sphere’s involved splitting off different aspects of life. For example, the “tender”, “morally sensitive” wife could create a home that was characterized by gentleness, Christian love, and beauty, while the husband would go work in the “grimey”, industrialized, “greed-driven” business world. Both “spheres” were supposedly more suited to their respective genders. In some ways, this narrative both legitimated gender roles and the harsh difficulties of urban, industrial life all in one fell swoop.

    I’m not at all trying to link Kuyper to outdated gender politics, I really only heard about him for the second or third time with this post. But I would wonder if there would be similar problems that might creep up with Kuyper’s sphere theory. The separate “logic” of each sphere has an appeal to me; this implies that there is a logic to different spheres of life that can be studied and understood. But I also know that there are often costs to this sort of splitting life into different parts. What is left out of the “spheres” entirely? What crucial issues are at the intersection of two sphere’s that can be more easily marginalized now? Does this end up being a sort of “atomic” theory of society, where society can be reduced to different “spheres” that may bump into each other, but are not thought to meaningfully interact or develop through interaction?

  • scotmcknight

    Tom F, yes, that’s a major issue… separation does lead to independence. There is, however, as much unity in Kuyper as I find in Luther’s two kingdoms theory… I could be wrong but though I suspect segregation as i read his Lectures on Calvinism I didn’t see that. At the core of Kuyper is the priesthood of the believer and the unmediated relationship of the individual believer with God. So that individualist integrity is central to his thinking… but that person is called to the whole of life.

  • Tom F.

    Well, alright then. Good to hear. Like I said, I really haven’t the expertise on Kuyper to be able to say anything definitive. Thanks for the summary there.

  • kevinstein

    Kuyper’s concept of “spheres” is more connected to social areas, they included church, state, family, market, the arts, and ‘science’/education. Kuyper argued that no sphere was dominate, rather each was equally established by God and had its own authority. Kuyper was very focused on resisting totalitarianism, and so focused more on the inherent sovereignty of each area. But as mentioned in the article, a student of Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, felt that the concept needed to be developed, and so he reinterpreted the concept, seeking to make it more philosophical, and then somewhat re-articulated Kuyper’s social theory. He hypothesized that reality/knowledge/time consists of a plurality of law-domains, or Aspects, which have their own sovereignty but also universality, and are therefore interdependent. One cannot fully understand the laws governed by an Aspect without the aid of the others. Individuality is the actualization of a structural relationship enabled by the laws governed by these Aspects. Social entities, like the church, state, market, family, etc. are better understood as being structurally guided by one particular Aspect but needing to actualize laws of them all. The results of actualizing law may be instantly realized or experienced over time. Similarly, an entity’s failure to experience flourishing, or shalom, is then understood as violating God’s cosmic law, a failure to actualize. This could be catastrophic or slowly revealed over time. In this process, the Aspects further disclose the laws they govern. The Neo-Calvinist view, as articulated by Kuyper via Spheres and Dooyeweerd via Aspects, seeks to avoid an atomistic view by helping us understand that individuality is real but also that mutual development is not only possible, but necessary, as it is God’s command and it is woven into the cosmos.

  • Tom F.

    Hi, Kevin. Thanks for the helpful summary, it sounds like Kuyper avoids most of the regular pitfalls with separation models. I may have to read more up on Dooyeweerd, he sounds interesting.


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